Keith Hufnagel, a free spirit from New York who became a professional skateboarder when he came West and then launched a streetwear brand that shaped action sport fashion on a global level, has died after battling brain cancer for more than two years.
Hufnagel died Sept. 24 at his home in Los Angeles, his namesake company, Huf, said in a statement. He was 46.
Skateboarding was still derisively written off as a diversion for slackers when Hufnagel began skating the Brooklyn Banks, an expanse of steep brick slopes and staircases under the Brooklyn Bridge. He recalled being heckled on the subway the moment someone saw his board.
“It was unacceptable to have a skateboard,” he told the Guardian in a 2011 interview. He said he often hid the board out of fear of being “punked out” by neighborhood toughs.
But while others saw skating as little more than a nuisance, Hufnagel viewed it as a countercultural movement — part rebellion, part urban adventure — and helped turn it all into a lifestyle with a line of footwear, hoodies, T-shirts and hats that caught the attention of mainstream brands like Nike, Adidas and even the parent company of Gucci, which eventually bought the boardsports company Volcom for more than $600 million
At the time of his death, Huf had shops in Los Angeles, Dallas, New York, Tokyo and beyond and was sold by retailers such as PacSun and Zumiez.
Hufnagel was born in New York on Jan. 21, 1974. His mother was a nurse; his father a vice president at Metropolitan Life Insurance. He attended San Francisco State for a semester but dropped out to focus on becoming a professional skateboarder. He found a sponsor and hit the skate circuit, traveling the globe. Eventually he tired of the grind.
“Around 2001, I was thinking about what’s going to happen after skate. What am I going to do? I know I can skate for a long time, but you don’t know how long you’ll be a professional for,” he told Goat, a website for rare tennis shoe enthusiasts.
Initially, he and his then-wife, Anne Freeman, thought about opening a boutique for women’s wear but quickly decided the market was already saturated. Instead, with little business experience and no concrete gameplan, they decided to focus on skatewear and opened a boutique, Huf, in San Francisco’s gritty Tenderloin.
“I’d been traveling for over a decade, seeing what was happening in Tokyo, New York, L.A., London,” he told Goat. “I was hitting all these major cities and seeing this streetwear and sneaker culture happening.”
So he and his wife stocked the shelves with then hard-to-find tennis shoes and apparel made by Perks, Mini, Stussy and Supreme, among others. Hufnagel came up with his own lines too. Sometimes he partnered with other brands, such as the Nike Dunks, a tie-dye design using the colors of the San Francisco Giants. The company prospered and expanded quickly, opening shops around the world.
“He was a skating legend of NYC and SF fame, and a pioneer DIY businessman that valued integrity over profits.” professional skateboarder Tony Hawk wrote on his Facebook page. “Skateboarding is collectively mourning today.”
In 2018, Huf was sold to the Japanese apparel group TSI Holdings.
Hufnagel is survived by his wife Mariellen, their children, a brother, Chris, and his mother.
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